Monday, 27 October 2008

The rain in Spain...

Since we arrived in the UK back in January we have not boarded another aeroplane, so we were all very excited as we got into Kylie to head to Heathrow. We had already booked her into a parking station near the airport, so we figured that, if we left around 6am we should have plenty of time to get the 48.7 miles to the parking station and be dropped at the airport to have some breakfast before the flight. Indeed, Meg was worried about how we would kill the time till our flight left at 9:20am. When we were still sitting, stationary, on the M25 at 8:10am these thoughts had turned from how we would kill time, to whether we would even make the plane.

We finally pulled into the parking station, leaving the keys in Kylie so the parking attendants could take her to her home for the next few days, and rushed with our bags to the minibus at 8:40am. Waiting the next five minutes for the minibus to load and depart was almost unbearable, every second bringing us closer to the point of no return. Only Wayne, who had been particularly stressed throughout the drive, felt more relaxed during this point, knowing that it was out of his hands. Fortunately, our driver was very good and we reached Terminal 1 at 9:02am.

It was at this moment that we were incredibly thankful for the internet and Meg’s decision to check us in to our flight the night before. With the help of British Airways wonderful staff we made the sudden decision to carry on all our baggage, which meant that, as we swept through customs, we had to abandon such things as deodorants at the airport. With a further run the final mile or so to the most distant gate in the terminal, we found ourselves, out of breath and more than a little stressed, in the queue to board the aircraft, with even a few stragglers behind us.

Brock and Quinn had only discovered our destination when we had to explain it to the BA staff as we checked in, so they were very excited looking out of the window. Not far in to the flight Brock asked if we had reached Ireland yet, which raised once more the question of what they actually do learn in Geography at schools. As we flew over France and the Bay of Biscay we lamented the absence of Google Earth which would have allowed us to identify exactly where we were. Our next sighting of land beneath us (somewhat delayed by the cloud over the Pyrenees and out into the Bay) was the brownish uplands of Northern Spain’s Castilla y Leon.

Heading south we saw many fascinating things; enormous lines of wind turbines; valleys carved out by rivers over centuries obviously having found weaknesses in the rocks and earth; tunnels going under hills and emerging on the other side; what looked like an enormous compound; and a wonderful dam north of Madrid. Barajas Airport is about 30klm to the west of Central Madrid but the pilot avoided the city and brought us in without having seen much of Madrid at all.

We were all amazed by just how large and beautiful the airport itself was. Gleaming marble floors, fabulous ergonomic and audio friendly ceilings, and (which we would discover was very typical of Madrid) lots and lots of public art. As we were making our way along one of the many travellators (they were extensive) we spotted a man dressed as a matador, he may even have been one, but without asking how can you tell? Stamps in our passport, a quick train journey to the main section of the airport and we really felt like we were on the ground in Spain.

Meg asked at multiple information desks to determine the best (and most cost effective) way to get to our hotel. A taxi would have cost approximately 100€. The airport bus was somewhere in the region of 60€. Alternatively, the Metro (Madrid’s public train system) as going to cost us 2€ each. Consequently, we went down to the platform and caught the train to Nuevos Ministerios, changed lines to go to Alonso Martinez, then one more change to get to Chueca. We would highly recommend the Metro in Madrid; it was fast and efficient (we got off one train, walked to the next platform and straight on to the next train each time), it was incredibly clean (no old food wrappers or discarded newspapers as there are in Australia and England) and brilliantly cheap. Despite a warning Meg had read about crime, there was no hint of it here and everyone we met or stood next to was exceedingly polite.

We had found our hotel on the internet and it looked beautiful. Chueca is an older suburb of Madrid only minutes to the north of the centre of the old city. One thing we had not discovered from our research was another aspect of the nature of Chueca. Emerging from the subway we found a newsagent whose owner spoke rudimentary English and were able to acquire a map of the area. It was only a couple of blocks to walk and during that journey we encountered the Venereal Disease Clinic, the Transgender Association, the Gay and Lesbian Travel Agency, and (right opposite our hostel) an enormous sex shop specialising in play toys. Glancing at our map again (and some of the advertising around the outside turned out to be quite graphic) we used our elementary Spanish to discover that Chueca is the gay and lesbian neighbourhood of Madrid.

As it turned out our hostel was in a fabulous spot just over a block from Gran Via, an ornate and upscale shopping street located in central Madrid. It is only a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Espana, the Plaza del Callao and the Plaza de la Puerta del Sol and not far from the main routes that the tour buses use. However, it was up 6 flights of fabulous wooden stairs which had worn down in places after hundreds of years of traffic up and down. When we reached the top and walked through the door into the hostel foyer Meg, Wayne and Brock all had the same reaction. Glancing past the reception desk into the bedroom beyond (which would turn out to be Meg and Wayne’s) we noticed the blood red walls, the shagpile heart shaped mat, the three large plastic flower shaped lights over the bedhead, and wanted to withdraw apologising that we had come to the wrong place.

After ascertaining that it was the hostel we had booked (although Meg and Wayne were later convinced that the next door room was being hired out by the hour) we adjourned to our rooms for a couple of hours rest before making our first (unencumbered by baggage) trip out on to the streets of Madrid. Like the metro, one of the first things that you notice about Madrid is the absence of litter. The place is amazingly clean, at least around where we were staying. The next thing is a proliferation of dogs. Over the next few days we were to encounter an enormous number of dogs ranging from very cute to happily mongrel. Most noticeable along the Gran Via is the extraordinary architecture (something for which the street is justifiably famous). Being the shopping hub of Madrid, Meg also had a great time checking out various stores, particularly the number of fine handbag shops.

One of the first sights that we came across after stepping out on to the Gran Via was McDonalds. This in itself wasn’t surprising, although the boys decided they wanted to eat there for dinner (when Meg and Wayne foolishly offered them the choice) but there were two features of the store which were. The first of these was the amazing early twentieth century architecture of the building itself; this has to be one of the most beautiful McDonalds buildings on the planet. The second thing was that McDonalds (and the Calle de la Montera which runs down beside it) had the outside of the building lined with prostitutes. On this day, where the temperature was a balmy 25, as opposed to the 12 degrees back in Hertfordshire, they were all dressed appropriately and we hurried the boys along past.

After spending a couple of hours window shopping, admiring the amazing statuery on the top of buildings, eating, and trying out some conversational Spanish (we had contemplated going to a movie until we discovered that, rather than being subtitled, they had been dubbed into Spanish) we decided to retire for the evening. We made our way back to the hostel, looking forward to being able to stroll around in the sunshine for an entire day and sit atop the red double decker tourist buses listening to the commentary as we got to know some more about Madrid. After laughing at a partial episode of ‘The Simpsons’ (which had also been dubbed into Spanish) we discovered that our televisions both showed BBC World News and CNN in English and drifted off to sleep after catching up with what was happening around the world.

The next morning dawned somewhat faster than we had hoped due to a couple of interesting circumstances which affected our hostel. One was that the burgeoning nightclub scene in Chueca really kicked off around midnight, seemingly under Wayne and Meg’s hostel room window. The other was that when people came to the top of the stairs looking for the use of a room for a short period they rung a buzzer which was clearly heard throughout the building. Amazingly, Brock and Quinn (who admitted the following morning to having stayed up until 1am) missed much of this. When we all stumbled out to breakfast it was with the knowledge that the weather had also changed overnight. It was now cold (a top of only 8 degrees) and wet, very very wet.

Having packed little else (and being optimistic by nature) we hastily put on our summer clothes hoping that the weather would clear during the day. We then ventured down and out on to the street to the ticket office for the tour bus. Strangely, when we walked up to the desk the attendant was discussing something with another customer. We can only assume that this was a topic of great importance, because the conversation lasted at least 10 minutes while we waited, with no sign of ever being completed. Because the boys and Meg are exceptionally patient by nature (sarcasm is intended at this point) we left and went further up the Gran Via hoping to catch the bus at the next stop. Even these hopes were somewhat confounded when the next bus to pull up proved to be completely full.

After waiting a while longer we finally made it on to the next bus (with the help of a French couple who communicated with us in Spanish that was almost as bad as ours) but we could not sit on the top level because the rain was so heavy and there was no cover at all up there. It is extremely doubtful that Meg would have ventured upstairs even if the top section had been open, given the coldness of the day. We plugged our earphones in to listen to the commentary and sat back to take in the Madrid we had been so looking forward to. Sadly, with the number of people on the bus and the state of the weather outside all of the windows quickly fogged up. As well, it turned out that the bus had a leak, over Meg’s seat, and Wayne had to sit with his arms wrapped tightly around her in order to keep her even barely warm. To finish off the picture, imagine a tour guide who informs you as to where you are by pushing a button which sets off the next piece of the pre-recorded commentary. Then envisage this tour guide only pushing that button after we had passed the thing being commentated upon. This will give you an accurate picture of our experience over the next few hours.

We sat through the Old Madrid version of the tour (there are two options in Madrid because of the size of the city and the enormous changes which have taken place over the centuries) twice. By the second time Meg seriously needed to visit a restroom as did Quinn. We noticed that we were approaching the Plaza Mayor, which Meg had envisioned as a sort of covered mall because of the descriptions provided in slightly broken English by various locals with which we had conversed., so we exited the tour bus. On the ground it became apparent that, instead Plaza Mayor is an open quadrangle with shops beside a path around the interior. Wayne also pointed out at this moment something which, upon reflection he recognises might have been better mentioned at an earlier stage. Madrid does not have public toilets! If you need to go, you need to buy something from a provendor whose estabishment contains a bathroom.

Bizarrely, the place in which we chose to eat so that most of the family (by now Brock also needed to go) could go to the bathroom was a Ben and Jerry’s Icecream parlour. Four Australians, living in England, on holidays in supposedly sunny Spain, were in a shop specialising in American icecream. This is not the limit of their merchandise however, they also sold what Meg has since described as the ‘best hot chocolate’ she has ever tasted. Some of this may be attributed to the fact that she was using her cup to warm her hands, which by this stage were nearly as blue as her feet. The lady behind the counter in the store spoke very good English and she found our stories and our complaints incredibly funny. She ushered us out the door, once it was clear that we were not going to purchase anything more, with hearty good wishes as to the rest of our stay.

Plaza Mayor means ‘Main Square’, and it has been called this since the start of the 16th century. The buildings around the square were inaugurated in 1620, giving Madrid a large, rectangular, stone-paved plaza with ground floor arcades. In 1853 it was remodelled by Juan de Villanueva. Until the last century, the Plaza Mayor was used as a marketplace on weekdays and was the scene of popular events from bullfights to public announcement of sentences during the Inquisition, religious processions, public executions and dance and theatre festivals. On Sunday mornings there is still a stamp market held beneath the arches, and during the Christmas holidays numerous stalls offer all types of Christmas decorations for sale. Christmas markets are a tradition in Europe and this knowledge may well bring us back to see Madrid again at a time closer to the holidays.

The symbol of Madrid is a bear standing upright with its front paws against a strawberry tree (we know, as do the people of Madrid, that strawberries do not grow on trees, but the flowers are strawberry shaped, hence the name). Both the tree and the bear used to be native to the area, however nowadays you tend to see some of the former but none of the latter in the wild. There is a statue of the symbol which is quite a famous part of Madrid and we longed to see it. What we didn’t realise at this point was that the statue was in a square not far from the Plaza Mayor, only a very short walk from where we were. Instead of looking at it, we walked to the next tour bus stop, where Wayne stood, looking back down the street, and reserved us a place in the line while the boys and Meg waited under some shelter.

Eventually another red bus picked us up from the front of the Plaza Mayor and we journeyed the relatively short distance to the point where the two tours overlap. This is one of the wonderful things about these sorts of tour, you can get on and off wherever you wish. In Madrid the one ticket covers both tour options and we purchased a pass for two days which meant that we could travel around and around Madrid for as long as we wished, getting off and then back on again whenever the mood took us. However, on this day the weather was so cold that the mood struck very very rarely. The one consolation in all of this, which we discovered later, was that back at home in Hertford it was even colder, so cold indeed that we had a number of inches of snow fall on the school where we live.

The changeover point was outside one of the major museums in Madrid, the Museo del Prado. This has the reputation of being one of the finest museums in the world and contains the best collection of classical art in Madrid. El Greco, Goya, Velazquez and Caravaggio are all represented there and, while we were in Madrid, there was also a touring display of some of Rembrandts more famous paintings. If we needed more convincing about the love of art that the people of Madrid have, then the fact that the queue for the exhibition snaked well out of the building down the long pathway at the front and out on to the street, on a day when it was cold, wet and squally would have done so. Meg and Wayne like to think that it was the length of the queue that kept us out, rather than the boys frequently expressed antipathy toward museums.

Travelling up the Caseo de la Castellana presented somewhat of a contrast, much as you might expect from the names of the two tours. While there was still some old fashioned architecture in this part of Madrid, there was a lot more which tended toward the modern. The street was extended during the 1950’s and therefore many of the buildings are from this period. Perhaps the most striking of these are the Puerto de Europa Towers, two 115 metre tall buildings built in 1996 by the Kuwait investments office (hmm, wonder why Spain went on to support the US against Iraq?). These were designed by the Americans Philip Johnson and John Burgee and they stand at an incline of 15 degrees to the vertical. When Meg first saw them she worried that she was seeing things.

Another impressive building is the Torres de Madrid. This is Spain’s tallest building and also one of the newest, having only been completed in the middle of this year. The architect who designed the Twin Towers designed a different building not far from this, and this also provoked some wry comments from people sitting on the bus. There is a sense that the Madrid bombings of March 11, 2004 have had a serious impact upon the city (there is a magnificent memorial park to the victims) but they will not let it hold them back.

This leg of the tour makes a turn before you reach the business district proper (where, for example, the Puerto de Europa towers actually stand) past another of Madrid’s most famous landmarks. The Bernabeu stadium, home of Real Madrid (one of the most famous sporting teams in the world) is just here. Wayne was very excited to see it and would have jumped out to do a tour then and there. However, the fact that it was raining quite heavily and we would be back doing this round trip again the following day convinced him that it was better to wait. It is a huge stadium, seating 80 000 people in a way that keeps them very close to the players and the ground. Attending a match there would be a phenomenal experience and much cheaper than attending similar games in England.

It was the upmarket shopping area of Madrid that occupied much of the second half of this tour. If a famous designer label wants to test a market in Spain, it is apparently to here that they come. You name a famous design label, they were represented here. It is also the area in which one finds many of the consulates and embassies in Madrid. We spotted a number of them (not the Australian sadly) with the most notable being the American Embassy. This was partially on account of the sheer scale of the building, the height of the walls etc.; partly it was the tank that sat outside.

After the completion of this leg, as we motored back down toward the Museo del Prado and the beautiful statue of Neptune which sits in the centre of the roundabout nearby, we had to make the decision as to what to do next. It did not seem that the weather was likely to ease this evening, and we were convinced that at night it would be even colder on the buses, a situation for which we were clearly not prepared. Consequently, it was decided to change buses once more and head back to the hostel for some dinner and some warmth. The walk back through the streets saw various body parts turn blue, but our hostel was warm and snug, and as we drifted off to sleep watching BBC and CNN we hoped that the next day would bring some sunshine.

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